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RCV in Massachusetts: When the piper gets ignored

On Tuesday, voters in Massachusetts will have the chance to pass Question 2, which will produce Ranked Choice Voting for most state and federal offices. That reform will give voters the chance to rank their preferences when casting their ballot for candidates — an opportunity which is especially important when more than two candidates are running. In this year’s primary in the Fourth Congressional District, for example, there were nine candidates competing to become the Democratic nominee. The winner prevailed with less than 23% of the vote. And voters in that district had an incredibly difficult strategic choice to make — not “who do I support?,” but “who do I have to vote for to avoid the person I don’t support becoming the nominee?”

The coalition supporting RCV is large and diverse. Yet the reform has been criticized, as recently reported by Matt Stout in the Boston Globe. Stout reports that critics of RCV believe out of state money signals that RCV is itself corrupt.

Yet this attack is just a confusion. No doubt, money is a problem in American politics, because as candidates spend the majority of their time raising money from a tiny fraction of Americans (and maybe not just Americans), they can’t help but be bent to support the views of that tiny few.

But Question 2 is not a politician. Question 2 is a principle. No matter who supports its passage, it will stay true to its principle of giving voters a wider range of choice, without the fear that their choice is helping the candidate they in fact oppose.

In Massachusetts in particular, RCV would give independent candidates a greater opportunity to compete against candidates from both entrenched political parties. There are about 2 million voters who are enrolled in political parties in Massachusetts, combined. There are 2.6 million voters who are not. Yet the plurality system gives no voice to that significant majority of voters in this state. RCV would.

More importantly, RCV would inspire every candidate to engage with the ideas of other candidates, more honestly and more decently. In an RCV system, candidates seek not just the first-choice preference of voters, but their second and third choice rankings as well. The best way to earn second and third choice support is to treat every candidate with decency and to take their ideas seriously. Had RCV existed in the recent Democratic primary for President, Andrew Yang’s ideas for a “universal basic income” would have been more central to the Democratic debate, long before a pandemic made them seem obvious.

Stout reports that some fear that out of state funding for Question 2 diminishes the voices of Massachusetts voters. This again is a confusion about the nature of the problem that money in politics creates. The vast majority of contributors to RCV in Massachusetts — 98.6% — come from individuals. Less than 1% of that money comes from individuals giving more than $3,000. Those contributions help make an important democratic innovation more understandable to more voters. That’s the value of political speech and its importance in a democracy. But these contributions to a referendum campaign don’t corrupt politicians to support some special private interest over the public good, and they certainly won’t bend Massachusetts voters to supporting the interests of out-of-state donors. In this case, he who pays the piper does not call the tune — because the tune is set, and regardless of the funders, that tune will consistently give every Massachusetts voter a chance to better express their preferences in Massachusetts elections.

The campaign for RCV in Massachusetts has received important support from out of state funders, especially from individuals and non-profits pushing for democratic reform everywhere. That is a good thing, not a reason to worry. It signals that the movement for democratic reform is growing across the country. And it promises a future in which people have more power, special interests have less. If the wealthy are willing to fund the weakening of their own political power, then I say more power to their “less power for us” movement.

Written by

law professor, activist.

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